At least one person was in critical condition and 24 were hospitalized after a robot accidentally punctured a 9oz. aerosol can of bear repellent at an Amazon warehouse in Robbinsville Township, New Jersey on Wednesday, causing dozens of employees to experience trouble breathing.
"This is another outrageous example of the company putting profits over the health and safety of their workers, and we cannot stand for this."
—Stuart Appelbaum, union leader
All told, 54 Amazon employees received medical attention because of the incident, according to multiple reports, which follow global strikes and demands from workers, advocates, and even lawmakers such as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) for the company—which is run by the richest man in the world, Jeff Bezos—to improve workplace conditions, including warehouse safety.
"Amazon's automated robots put humans in life-threatening danger," declared Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union.
"This is another outrageous example of the company putting profits over the health and safety of their workers, and we cannot stand for this," he added, emphasizing that as one of the world's biggest companies, Amazon "cannot continue to be let off the hook for putting hard working people's lives at risk."
Robots macing workers is peak Amazon. https://t.co/VCXss97UMV
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— Derrick Crowe (@derrickcrowe) December 6, 2018
The National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, a worker advocacy group, called for reforms to ensure employee safety.
"The company keeps saying that safety of workers is their 'top priority," Marcy Goldstein Gelb, the group's co-executive director, told the Asbury Park Press. "The tens of millions of consumers who will spend money at Amazon this holiday season have a right to ask: 'If that's true, why do people keep getting hurt, injured and killed at Amazon facilities?'"
Rachael Lighty, a spokeswoman for Amazon, claimed in a statement to the Washington Post that "the safety of our employees is our top priority." Another statement to NJ.com said that "all of the impacted employees have been or are expected to be released from hospital within the next 24 hours," including the person initially listed as in critical condition.
Robbinsville spokesman John Nalbone explained to the Post that the can of bear spray released in the facility contained capsaicin, derived from the chile pepper plant capsicum. Such derivatives, according to the National Park Service (pdf), "are an extreme irritant of the skin, eyes, nose, throat, and lungs of bears, humans, and other mammals."